BILLINGS – Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele on Saturday urged members of the Montana GOP to put aside their differences and “go on offense” to take control of the state Legislature and return U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg to a sixth term.
Steele — the keynote speaker for the Montana Republican Party’s annual convention in Billings — said the GOP can retake Congress and expand its power base in Helena this November if it stays focused.
The call for Republicans to pull together comes in the wake of a June 8 primary vote in which Rehberg faced a determined challenge by a follower of the tea party movement, Mark French.
French garnered 20 percent of the vote — far short of a serious threat but enough to raise questions about Rehberg’s lock on office.
“We cannot afford to take for advantage the congressman’s re-election,” Steele said. “You cannot assume because you’ve got a slight majority in the (state) Senate that you’re going to keep it. You cannot assume because you’re just short in the House that you’re going to take it.”
The Montana GOP holds a slim 27-23 edge in the Senate. The House is evenly split, but Democrats have an advantage because their party holds the governor’s office.
Republicans have an even weaker presence in higher office. The states two U.S. senators are Democrats, as are the top five state elected officials — attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, state auditor, secretary of state and governor.
Despite French’s warning following the primary that Rehberg was “going to lose” if he failed to embrace tea party politics, French said this week he doesn’t plan an active role in the fall campaign.
Other tea party leaders already are falling in line behind Rehberg, saying Democratic nominee Dennis McDonald, a former party chairman, is too liberal for their support.
“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction (with Rehberg), but also a lot of party loyalty that says he’s our guy and we’ve got to stand behind him,” said Tim Ravndal, an organizer for the Montana tea party movement in Townsend.
Also on Saturday, a slate of eight GOP legislative hopefuls appeared at a tea party-sponsored candidates forum.
It was billed as a way to vet the candidates, yet there was scant political distance between the Republicans and host Eric Olsen, founder of Montana Shrugged, a Billings-based tea party group.
On issues from gun rights and cutting taxes to the extraction of the state’s natural resources, the candidates offered positions indiscernible from Olsen’s.
“The worry is that people drift. We’re here to make sure people don’t drift too far,” Olsen said.
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